Durham News

‘Drawing letters’ a first for young refugee in Durham from Congo

Note: This is the third installment in an occasional series written by students at Duke University working with professor Deb Reisinger and journalist Geraldine Smith in a service-learning course helping central African refugees in Durham.

Pascal, 15, is in ninth grade at Jordan High School. He can barely read basic English. Still, he likes going to school.

“School is good here,” he says.

He loves the pizzas at lunch and the joyful though disruptive nature of classmates throwing pieces of paper across the room. He loves singing in the choir. And recently, he also started to enjoy “drawing letters.”

“If I can write, my life will be easier,” he explains.

The teenager and his family moved to Durham last year, having spent the past 13 years as refugees in Kampala, Uganda, after fleeing their home in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

They couldn’t afford the tuition non-citizens had to pay to attend school in Kampala. A local church sponsored older sister’s Pascaline’s studies, while Pascal and his younger siblings had to work small jobs to help their single mother.

When they arrived in Durham, they had never been to school and spoke only Swahili.

Pascal was presented with the challenge of adjusting to a completely unfamiliar education system immediately upon his arrival. He was not alone.

According to Marcie Pachino, who teaches English as a Second Language at Jordan High School, there are currently 251 LEP students (Limited English proficient, a determination by the state based on an annual test) enrolled at Jordan, out of 1,775 students. This number has increased dramatically over the past three years.

Cultural and language barriers make it particularly difficult for refugee families to bridge the gap between themselves and members of the school community. One of the most challenging aspects is attendance and discipline, the simple fact of sitting at a desk for a whole day when you never got used to it. Another difficulty is finding out what resources are available to help them.

While he knows that he has a counselor at school, Pascal is unsure of who this counselor is.

When asked if she had been in contact with anyone from his school, his mother Bashige seemed distressed: “How? I don’t speak English, I don’t have a car, I don’t know how to use a computer”

The Durham Public Schools offers a phone interpreter service. “If a parent wants to speak to us using the service, they can get word to us through their child,” Pachino explains. “It’s available in all languages that we’ve had a need for.” Encouraged by the good news, Bashige asked the question that was really burning her lips: “Translated in the African curriculum, what is Pascal’s current grade?” The answer, “la troisième,” (the third) made her proud.

Pascal and his siblings were completely illiterate before their arrival in Durham. While their English has improved remarkably since their arrival, Pascal says one of the things he finds difficult is that his teachers “talk very fast.” When he is assigned homework, it is often difficult for him to complete for reasons beyond a language barrier. A piece of World History homework required students to write a response to an online article. Pascal’s six family members share one laptop and are not completely familiar with all of its functions.

For parents, the transition is also a difficult one. A family friend described the difficulties she has faced with her children becoming involved in extracurricular activities, for lack of public transportation. Pascal would love to play soccer. There are several free options in the Durham area, but without a car and a poor knowledge of the city, getting out of the apartments complex is a big deal. These struggles to become involved outside of the classroom isolate children from the learning environment and also from the larger school community.

Durham Public Schools make impressive efforts to respond to the recent increase of children refugees. “All of the ESL teachers are in contact at some point with their student’s family,” Pachino says. “We could use some bilingual Arabic/English volunteers in a few of our classes.”

Jordan High School has established five levels of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Pascal and his sister are in one of the lower level: They need to pass six classes out of eight to reach the next level. While the teachers are very dedicated to evaluating students and assessing their strengths, it is hard for them to work as they would like to with an average of 30 students per class. “We would need more teachers to reduce class size,” Pachino says.

Pascal might not reach 10th grade this year, but he is definitely willing to do so next year. His older sister Pascaline landed a good job at the Red Cross because she could read, write and speak English. For him, that’s a strong motivation.